A recommendation letter is part of a package that may include a cover letter, resume or vita, transcripts, writing sample, statement of purpose, and other recommendation letters. A good recommendation letter will bring the applicant to life on the page, allowing the audience to gain a “feel” for the candidate’s professionalism, character, and evidence of ability.
For the letter writer, providing a recommendation offers an opportunity to mentor students’ continued professional development, reflect on your own teaching or advising, and assess how you’re enacting equity and inclusivity.
Context Considerations: Are you the right person to write this letter?
Ask the student questions to determine whether you’re the right person to write this recommendation. You might begin by asking:
- What are they applying for?
- Who are the other recommenders?
- Why have they asked you?
- What’s their timeline?
In addition, you should consider what you’re able to speak to and how well that meets to needs of the context.
If no: Decline firmly but kindly and coach the student on how they might reach out to other recommenders.
If maybe: Have a frank conversation about the content of the letter and the role status plays in the hiring process. Meet with the student, either in person or through email, to ask questions about their goals and interests.
If yes: Ask the student, “What do you want me to speak about?” You should also request relevant materials, including their application materials, assignments from classes they’ve taken from you, etc. – anything that will help you craft a specific, positive letter.
Writing the Letter: Genre and Style
A recommendation letter typically has four main sections:
1) The opening: Typically one short paragraph that explains your relationship to the student, how long you’ve known them, and in what context you’ve known them.
2) Achievement: One to two paragraphs that provide specific, detailed evidence that may:
- compare how the student relates to their peers,
- offer a quantitative measure of their work,
- discuss the student’s work in particular,
- discuss the student’s contributions as part of a team or group.
3) Character: One optional paragraph that addresses the student’s characteristics, using specific detail.
4) The closing: One short paragraph that summarizes the student’s qualities and accomplishments.
- Formal business letter on letterhead
- Usually one page, no more than two
- Block format
- Dear X:
- To Whom It May Concern:
- Dear XX Selection Committee:
- Closing: “Sincerely” + Signature + typed name and full title on separate lines
- Write out or explain the name of any courses (e.g., not just RHET 105 or MCB 120)
- Include specific examples
- Use direct, affirmative language
- “I write with pleasure to recommend …”
- “I enthusiastically support…”
- Address themes like motivation, ability, maturity, communication skills, work ethic, and leadership qualities
- Qualifying or inconsistent language
- “To the best of my knowledge”
- “As far as I know”
- “She sometimes seems unsure of herself, but that is not necessarily a bad trait”
- Praise that sounds like criticism
- “He has developed adequate skills”
- Biased language
- Take care with adjectives and descriptive phrases to avoid unintentionally biased language. For more information and examples, visit The University of Arizona’s handout about avoiding gender bias in reference writing and Lehigh University’s resource on writing letters of recommendation.